Violence in Belfast over union flag continues (Photo: Broadsheet)

Right wing fascist groups and mafia-type intimidators now appear to be at the heart of the flag protests in Northern Ireland.

Britain First, a fascist group based in Britain, has claimed to be at the forefront of leading  what it describes as peaceful flag protests. 29 police officers were injured over the weekend in clashes that threaten to restore the bad old days in Northern Ireland.

The clashes began last month after Belfast City Council ruled on December 3 that the Union Jack would no longer fly over City Hall every day but only on 15 select days and have continued unabated since.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams and PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott have both pointed out that outside agitation is forming a large part of the protest core.

Adams stated over the weekend that, “The vast majority of the protests taking place around the flag issue are illegal. Most are being organized by the BNP, (British National Party which is composed of fascists) the UVF and criminal elements, some of whom are well known drug pushers.”

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On their website the British First group proclaims, “As protests continue across Ulster at the disgraceful decision to remove our flag from Belfast City Hall, Britain First has once again been at the forefront of peaceful demonstrations.

“Instead of going away, as those who would attack our flag and Ulster’s British identity had hoped, the protests are only getting stronger.

“We see protests in Ulster, we see them on the mainland – no surrender, we will never submit to this attack on our flag.

Read More: Loyalist flag riots leave 29 police injured in Belfast as violence escalates

“Many thousands have turned out to take a stand against this disgusting attack, many thousands more are on the way.”

PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott said social media is playing a role and youngsters as young as 10 are involved.

We’ve had an 11-year-old in custody but I believe some of [the rioters] are as young as 10,” Baggott said.

“The flag has become a rallying point. If you ask them what they are doing, [some] wouldn’t be able to tell you. It’s easy for them to be manipulated. They are not mature enough to see the consequences for their own life opportunities or the bigger picture.”

He said the riots “gathered a momentum of their own, quickly, through modern communications, which is a new phenomenon.”

Baggott said there was an urgent need for the Parades Commission to tackle the protests. “There has been a vagueness about the need for protests to be properly authorized and regulated through existing mechanisms, which at the moment is the Parades Commission. There has been an ambiguity around this for some time,” he said.

Read More: Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams says “vast majority” of the Belfast protests are illegal

The deeper issue is that the unionists can feel the power flow away from them. The recent census show a nationalist majority is in the offing in Northern Ireland with the Catholic numbers one birth cycle away from a majority.

Does that mean a united Ireland?

No, not necessarily, but it means parity of esteem issues like flags will become even more important.